Does it pass the smell-test? Review of “The DNA of you and me”

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Moving into 2020, I realize that this is now my 10th year of blogging, a sport that I never really signed up for. In 2010, my daughter was 13 years old; now she is preparing for a series of interviews for graduate programs in the biosciences. Time flies! And in the meantime, she is now suggesting books for me to read, rather than the other-way-round. One such book was a new LabLit novel called “The DNA of you and me” by Andrea Rothman.

I am a sucker for this genre, and basically will read any science or lab-related fiction, just for the curiosity of seeing how my profession is perceived in someone else’s eyes. My daughter, who seems to have picked up similar interests, was not overly positive. And in truth, having read the novel, nor am I. But I do suggest that interested readers pick up a copy and decide for themselves.

In case, dear reader, you elect to read the novel, I will not give away too much. The narrator of the story and heroine is Emily, who begins the tale as a Principal Investigator who studies and maps how the brain perceives our sense of smell, and has just received notification of winning the Lasker Prize, an award that often has served as a precursor for the Nobel Prize. However, most of the story returns 11 years earlier to the start Emily’s postdoctoral studies in a prestigious New York lab, detailing her interactions with her manipulative mentor and a torrid but heart-rending relationship with a fellow postdoc and project co-worker. So far so good? Well, to a point…

Science, intrigue, prestigious prizes, love affairs—what could possibly be wrong with that formula?! Trying to put my finger on perhaps what I perceive as the main drawback, the word “authenticity” pops up. While labs come “in all flavors” with regards to the vast types of social interactions between those doing the research, the interactions and situations that come up in this novel simply don’t ring true for me. Yes, the Principal Investigator (my position at this point in my career) can be immoral and a bad person. That’s not out of the realm of believability. But it’s pretty much inconceivable that a Principal Investigator would or even could hide the project, and names of the genes that some postdocs in the lab are working on from others in the lab. Especially, as in the novel, if the goal was to prevent one postdoc from starting to work on that project. As a Principal Investigator, all he/she would have to do would be to say: “that’s their project, they are already working on it, this is yours.” No need to have people hiding things from one another. That simply doesn’t pass the smell test.

In addition to many additional smaller points that just don’t mesh including real-life interactions between people in any of the research labs that I’ve ever encountered, I found some issues with the scientific descriptions. Scientists love to talk about their science, and a common problem is that many of us typically forget that the general public does not have the same specialized knowledge, and that when presenting our work to lay-people, it is necessary to carefully explain our science and not go into superfluous detail. I took that point very seriously in the 4 LabLit novels that I wrote, wanting more to provide a flavor of the lab experience than a primer in the science itself. The author of “The DNA of you and me” launches rather heavily into scientific descriptions, but surprisingly I found some to be less than accurate. As an example, for those of you who are interested in the science, while searching for proteins potentially involved in neural pathfinding in the olfactory system in the novel, the author (who is speaking for Emily as a postdoc) on several occasions mentions finding good candidate genes based on DNA motifs—and yet, it would make a lot more sense that Emily would identify functional protein motifs, rather than DNA sequences, that might account for some specific pathfinding function.

Given the anomalies noted above, I wondered a little about where the author obtained her information—and whether she had scientific research experience herself. Perhaps she simply had an unqualified adviser who gave poor advice? Upon searching for the author’s background, I found that she described herself as a researcher who received two grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the sense of smell. But that didn’t seem to mesh with the descriptions of the lab, research and some of the science. The reason, of course, is that someone who has received two NIH grants would be a Principal Investigator and obviously someone with a lot of experience and expertise.

Unfortunately, I can be like a bull in a China shop, or a dog worrying a bone. I had to know—was she really a Principal Investigator before turning to writing? Enter a scientist’s tools—PubMed and NIH Reporter. Through the PubMed, I found that Dr. Rothman had indeed published several; scientific papers—one as a first-author (indicating that the work was driven by her), and had 3 additional collaborative papers. One, I might add, with a group of Israeli researchers led by a Principal Investigator at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel, who taught me part of a course in physiology in 1987. Small world….

Returning to the author and her scientific productivity—in my experience, although there can be great variability in individual systems, her output would have more reflective of a graduating student rather than a postdoc, and certainly not the head of a lab conducting independent research. A quick check on the other website—NIH Reporter—indeed showed that one of the “grants” held by the author was a predoctoral fellowship, indeed one of my own students currently holds that very fellowship. While certainly prestigious for a student, I would be hard-pressed to call, it a “grant.” The second award was a grant of sorts, but a small award and not indicative of an independent researcher.

Without spoiling things “The DNA of you and me” does not paint a very flattering portrait of scientists and their ethics and behavior. Are there “rogue scientists” who are unethical and behave badly? Obviously. Are they representative of the entire scientific community? From my experience, absolutely not. So why, then, do such stories come to the forefront in fiction related to science? “Intuition” by Allegra Goodman is another example. Is it purely to provide tension and excitement in the story? Or is it possible, just possible, that the smell of sour grapes, and a career that hasn’t rocketed forward is leading some LabLit authors to bash science and career scientists a little? I leave it to you, dear reader to decide whether The DNA of you and me” passes the smell test.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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